By Kathryne Bomberger
On 18 November El Salvador became the sixth country to sign the Agreement on the Status and Functions of the International Commission on Missing Persons. ICMP is the only international organization exclusively dedicated to helping governments and others account for those who go missing as a result of conflict, crime, migration, human rights violations and natural disasters.
The ICMP Agreement gives signatories a role in ICMP’s development and strategy. In December 2014, it was signed by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg.
El Salvador’s accession will facilitate ICMP’s capacity to work with the authorities in the country, where as many as 8,000 people are still missing from the conflict of the 1980s; and where today more than 2,000 are recorded as missing as a result of gang violence.
The Monument to Memory and Truth in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, is a 100-meter long wall bearing the names of tens of thousands of civilians who were murdered or who disappeared during the armed conflict between 1979 and 1991, it is designated “a space for hope, to continue to dream and build a more just society, more humane and more equitable.”
The dedication contains within it insights on the challenge of accounting for the missing. The resilience of hope and common humanity are central to the task – but, significantly, the monument also speaks of justice. Finding and identifying human remains, enabling family members to bury their loved ones with dignity, and bringing perpetrators to account before the law are indispensable steps in peace-building.
The conflict in El Salvador left 75,000 dead in a population of under six million. If, for example, the United States had suffered the same ratio of casualties to overall population the number of dead would be four million; for Germany the figure would be one million, for the United Kingdom, more than 800,000. These comparisons may communicate the scale of the catastrophe that befell El Salvador in the 1980s.
In 1993, the Salvadorian Congress enacted an amnesty law. Despite international pressure to repeal the law, it remains in force. This means, among other things, that 8,000 families whose loved ones were never found cannot use the courts to compel suspects to provide information that would help to locate the mortal remains of victims.
In a gruesome development, El Salvador has in recent years been overwhelmed by gang violence. The homicide rate has hovered close to that of the civil war – and most victims are young.
In May 2012 ICMP hosted a workshop at its premises in Sarajevo for representatives from El Salvador’s judicial sector and civil society. ICMP is also taking part in a project with the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and the Salvadorian organization Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos. The project assists DNA-based investigations, kinship analysis and database informatics on missing children. In addition, ICMP has participated in consultations organized by El Salvador’s State Prosecutor and Supreme Court, on a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a case related to massacres perpetrated during the civil war.
Tens of thousands of families around the world are struggling today with the misery of not knowing the fate of a loved one – but there are strategies that can facilitate the effort to account for the missing and reduce this suffering, and ICMP is at the forefront of efforts to apply such strategies. El Salvador’s accession to the Agreement highlights the fact that there are ways of addressing this global challenge. I hope that more countries will sign in due course, and in this way contribute to a global effort to support justice and create space for hope.